The Cost of Endorsing H.264

As you’ve probably heard, both YouTube and Vimeo have released beta support to their massively popular websites to play videos using the HTML5 video tag instead of Flash. While I am glad the video sites are finally switching to the native HTML video tag, I am perplexed why they have gone with the non-free option.

Firefox, Safari, Google Chrome, and soon Opera all support the HTML5 video tag with the ability to play Ogg Theora encoded videos (except Safari). On the other hand, H.264 is only supported by Google Chrome and Safari. Both of these formats do the same thing, they specify a compression standard that allows for efficient playback at relatively small file sizes. There are a number of technical differences, but generally, they preform relatively the same. The big difference between the two is that Ogg Theora is royalty free and available for anybody to use, while H.264 is encumbered by patents held by the MPEG LA association. This same organization will charge anybody who uses it a hefty royalty fee starting in 2011.

If you have a personal blog and want to put a video on your website using H.264 this means you need to have to hire a lawyer to create a deal with the MPEG LA to allow you to use their codec. This will either cost you a lot of money, or they will not allow you to do it. They do have the right to simply deny you if they don’t feel like it.

However, if you use the open Ogg Theora format, you are free to simply upload the video to your website to start using it, the same as uploading an image. Ogg Theora is not covered by any patents and is royalty free.

I don’t understand why both YouTube and Vimeo are both going the non-free route. Is it simply because they have the money to pay MPEG LA? Whatever the case, endorsing H.264 encoded videos as the format for video on the web is an option for large companies with money to pay, but it’s completely the wrong choice for blog writers and any small or medium sized organization.

The Importance of the HTML Video Tag

Since Firefox, Safari, and recently Chrome hit the browser scene, the web has been growing and improving at a much faster pace. The next evolution of the web comes in the form of HTML 5, the latest HTML standard that brings native video playback, offline storage, 2D drawing via the canvas tag among others features. Of those, the video tag is the most important and critical to the continued success of the open web.

Native video playback inside a web browser will now be as simple as embedding an image into a page:

<video src="" controls></video>

The benefits of this are immediately obvious to any software developer. It’s a native tag so it fits in much better to the web platform, it can be controlled through JavaScript, and no more messing around with a black-box flash embed. Side benefits of this are bringing video to all users, not just the platforms that Flash supports (stable 64 bit version + iPhone version).

So far only Firefox 3.5 and Safari 4 have built in support for the video tag; Opera and Chrome support is in the works.

The web has flourished and grown to where it is today because it is based on open standards and because it is not controlled by any one company or organization. Lets continue to keep the web open and successful by using the new video tag.